That was a fun weekend of football.
Except for Chiefs’ fans, of course.
The Wildcard Weekend in the NFL playoffs had three close games and one shocking (to some) upset. But no loss hurts more than the Chiefs’ 45-44 collapse to the Colts after taking a 38-10 lead in the third quarter off one of Andrew Luck’s three interceptions.
Yet even when the Chiefs had a big lead, it never felt like they were beating the Colts. The Colts had mental breakdowns on defense to give up a couple of those big passing plays. The offense was setting up the Chiefs half the game with crucial mistakes, the one thing Indianapolis doesn’t do.
Alex Smith played extremely well, but perhaps the big lead was a mental block. It wasn’t like the Chiefs played to not lose the rest of the game, but they only managed two field goals most of the second half against a Colts’ defense that raised its level of play. A big lead like that only put the Chiefs in a shell as they made sure to not screw things up.
While the Colts raised their level of play to spark the comeback, the Chiefs did not respond by doing the same. They didn’t play like the score was still 0-0. True, you play more conservatively with a big lead, but there wasn’t that fire from Smith (and the defense, for that matter) that I know I saw when he was with San Francisco. Part of it might just be a result of the Robert Mathis sack-fumble play. From then on, Smith seemed to play tighter. On the final drives, he had an inaccurate throw and also made a mistake with the intentional grounding (probably all on him as he was facing a lot of pressure, but it could’ve been a miscue with a receiver. Doubtful, though).
In the end, the Chiefs’ defense and injuries showed up. Losing Jamaal Charles didn’t seem insurmountable when they had that big lead, but his backup (who also got hurt) and third-stringer weren’t able to turn three- or four-yard runs into seven- or eight-yard runs like Charles normally does in the fourth quarter of games. Those easy yards would’ve kept a couple drives alive, shortened the game and limited possessions enough to prevent the Colts’ comeback.
The defense showed again that, if it doesn’t get to the quarterback, it isn’t good. The Chiefs struggled tackling again (their performance against the Colts the first time around was pathetic). When they were 9-0, they faced several backup quarterbacks along the way to inflate some of their defensive stats.
Regardless of the collapse, the Chiefs are still going in the right direction. Smith will continue to improve. Charles will contend for a league MVP next year. As long as the defense gets stronger, the Chiefs will contend for a division title and good seeding in the playoffs.
Page 2 of 3 - Everyone was talking like the Chargers didn’t belong in the playoffs, but San Diego did exactly what no one thought could be done: travel to cold Cincinnati and beat the Bengals on their home field, where they hadn’t lost all season. San Diego executes a smart game plan, which really started with the big win in Denver on a Thursday night game earlier this season. In that game, much like yesterday, the Chargers ran the ball efficiently with Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead, and Philip Rivers was been excellent on third downs to keep drives going. That wasn’t supposed to work against Cincinnati, but for the third season in a row, the Bengals’ offense didn’t show up to give the defense a reprieve.
That brings questions about Andy Dalton. Yes, he’s only in his third season, but other quarterbacks have been judged harshly at this point in their careers, and Dalton will not be exempt from that. Once again, he wasn’t accurate enough with the football and he made critical mistakes by trying to do too much. There were big plays down the field to be made, but he didn’t give his top-flight receivers much of a chance. The Bengals are built well for the regular season, but their inconsistency won’t get them through the month of January.
In the NFC, the Saints quieted critics who said they couldn’t win outdoors in the cold. What was most impressive was how the Saints won an ugly game. Drew Brees wasn’t on point, and he made decisions and poor throws he rarely makes in a game. But the Saints won because their running game, even without Pierre Thomas, was good enough and coach Sean Payton made all the right moves to have the ball for the final possession.
Perhaps ironically, Eagles coach Chip Kelly wasn’t able to get Nick Foles and the offense to score quickly enough late in the fourth quarter (they seemed to just take their time too much). Had they scored earlier, the Saints might not have been able to waste the rest of the clock and the Eagles could’ve had a minute or so to get a desperation attempt at a field goal.
And finally, the Niners and Packers provided another exciting game to close the weekend. San Francisco’s defense is good, as everyone knows, but Green Bay’s defense played well, too, even without Clay Matthews (Is it just me, or would players from the 70s find ways around playing with an injured thumb? I know we need to take injuries seriously, but still). But the Niners just seemed to be one step ahead of Green Bay all game long. Both times the Packers took the lead, San Francisco answered right back to reclaim the lead.
Page 3 of 3 - How about Michael Crabtree? The Niners sure have missed him most of the season. His rise and the fact that Colin Kaepernick looks for him a lot will do wonders for the offense. It’ll open up Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis quite a bit. One note from the game: the referees are letting the defenses harass receivers again (like they did with the Ravens against the Niners in last year’s Super Bowl). It’ll be interesting to see what will warrant a pass interference going forward.
Looking ahead, three of the four Divisional Round games will be rematches. Denver will have its hands full with the Chargers, who dominated them last meeting (in Denver). San Francisco will be better prepared for Carolina’s pass rush, and New Orleans still will struggle at Seattle. The Colts can ill-afford to fall behind against the Patriots, who know how to finish games with the best of them.
Wild Card Weekend co-MVPs: Colts receiver TY Hilton, Niners receiver Michael Crabtree.
Interesting, useless trends from Wild Card Weekend:
-Three of the four winners were on the road.
-The two teams in the NFC that won had the better record.
-The two teams in the AFC that won had worse records.
-Three of the four winners trailed at halftime.
-Three of the four games were decided by three points or less.
-Three of the teams that scored the first touchdown lost.
Next column: why the NFL should leave the playoffs the way they are.
Jeremy Costello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.